I’m Nobody — not the one in Emily Dickinson’s poem, although we share the same views. Tonight, you will find me in the grim green room.
When in this room — and I’m dragged back here all too often — I feel edgy and unwell. Perhaps the full moon, creeping above the windowsill like a peeping Tom, is to blame.
Boredom presses in like bad weather from these three go-light green walls (the fourth, doubtless an equally aggressively green, is invisible). I pull a volume from the neat rows of identical books, hoping against hope that something interesting will lie between the pages. As always, the books lie blank and silent. The only real book on this shelf is The Runaway Bunny — a good book, but one I’ve read thousands of times.
I am not alone here. Would that I were! The child lies stiffly in bed, furred paws resting atop the covers. This nameless, pajama-clad child is of indeterminate sex and species. Its head resembles a stuffed rabbit’s — not a real rabbit, mind you, but a stuffed rabbit.
“Hello,” I say tentatively. Without looking at me, the child begins its nightly litany of its possessions. If I had eyes, I would roll them, but I am the least-developed Nobody in the history of fictional characters.
Once upon a time, I lived in author’s minds. I frolicked across fresh white pages, danced on the ruled lines. That is what Nobodies are for. Miss Dickinson never realized that there are more than two of us. We are legion, for we are needed.
Most Nobodies yearn to become fixed persons, the characters who run away with stories. I am the less common sort, the kind who enjoys being Nobody. I love basking half-formed in the words, feeling the ideas flow around me. When the character begins to set like gelatin in a mold, I slip out to become Nobody again. After Nobodies become TKs, they soon become Somebodies, and once one is named there’s no hope of being a carefree Nobody again.
But something terrible happened in the green room. Nobody became a character, and so I am trapped here. From time to time I almost escape, but I always snap back to this cheerless place, where the moon moves in the same arc.
The child is a useless conversationalist. The mouse and the kittens stare at me blankly, too unrealized even to chase one another as they teleport from page to page. The toyhouse is empty, and its yellow windows — a trompe l’oeil mimicking light from within — hold neither warmth nor welcome.
I cross to the old-fashioned telephone and lift the receiver, but dead silence greets me. Voices from the telephone do not belong in this book; the only voices here sift in, disembodied and without direction, when it pleases them.
People call this book timeless, but I can’t agree. I know the world has changed. The bowl of mush doesn’t belong on the table; children forgo snacks before bed. Combs look much the same, but hairbrushes have handles now. Fireplaces are no longer common in bedrooms. Even the language has changed. Just once, I would like the dignity of a direct-address comma.
“Why do people still read this book?” I ask in despair.
Nothing in the room moves, but the voices answer. Baritones and sopranos layer over one another, accents and languages clash, but nevertheless they say clearly, “Children love this book.”
“Because it talks like they do. But you don’t need a book to bid goodnight to everything in sight. Children love it more when it’s a game with their parents, when no book is opened.”
“Parents love this book.”
“Admiring bog!” I cry. “I hear their voices in the telephone, gabbling in their rush. Their world seethes with flickering screens and bad spelling and speakers turned too loud. They’d rather have suspiciously quiet kittens and a bowl full of mush.”
“The parents want peace,” admit the voices, “They want a pleasant book to soothe their children to sleep.”
“I’ve seen the toys they give their children! Those things turn batteries into chirps and giggles and five-second earworms. They flash like police cars speeding to an accident. To ‘stimulate’ them, the parents say. Why does no one stimulate children’s minds with books?”
“They do,” snap the voices. “They have vocabulary books. Many have excellent photographs, some even correctly labeled.”
“Children need more than words. They need stories! They need characters to love! When I’ve glimpsed books beyond this one, I’ve witnessed adventures. I’ve met real characters — a Nobody knows those. Goslings and wild things, a rabbit made of velveteen. This book has no characters, no story. It’s a ritual tamed into meaninglessness, read relentlessly by tired parents desperate to bore their children to sleep.”
The old woman appears in the rocking chair, her beady eyes gleaming out of her masklike rabbit head. “Hush,” she mutters without glancing up from her knitting. “Hush.”
I sigh. I know what happens next. Resigned, I watch the child pull its furry limbs out from under the covers and begin to make its rounds.
“Thanks for nothing, noises everywhere,” I hiss. I open the door of the toyhouse and crawl in, my amorphous body flexing like a rat’s. Here I am unobserved, and once my role is finished, perhaps I can break out.
Perhaps this time I can fly away. Although it’s against my nature, I begin to dream of becoming a Somebody. Anything would be better than the life of a Nobody trapped in a finished book. The joy of Nobodyness lies in watching the book grow, but this one just froze–and too many times in a day, I am frozen in it.
The child curves its boneless limbs across its pillow, muttering its goodnights to comb and to brush, to me and to mush.
And with that, I am free — for now. I will try to escape, but someone is reading this book almost every second of the day.
It’s always bedtime somewhere.
Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her novelettes and short stories have appeared in magazines and in various print and eBook anthologies. You can find her on Twitter at @pronouncedLAHra.
They appeared in the night. On Friday the world went to sleep. On Saturday morning they appeared. Billions of them. As many as there are people. It’s on the news, it’s in the papers, on the radio and on-line. Everywhere. If you’re not hearing about them you see them. Everywhere you go. Lines. Clear like water. Soft as air. They don’t knot. They don’t tangle. They just flow. Through buildings, cars, walls, prisons, trees and bodies. You can’t touch them. Your hand will pass right on through. The only thing we know about them is where they start and where they end. Always from a person and ending at another person.
I look down at my own. It pours out of my neck and slips across the room and disappears through the wall. I wonder where it goes. I feel it pulling me and the curiosity aches. So many have followed theirs but always to heartbreak. Always disappointment at the end of the line. A total stranger. Or someone you never dreamed of.
The theory is, the line is sort of your soul stretching. It gets shorter and fatter the closer you get to the end. The closer you get to the other person. When the two ends touch, it disappears. When the two ends separate again, it stretches the line thin.
My line is skinny. Like everything else about me. All bones and bumps. The other end must be hundreds of miles away. In another country. I push the thought from my mind. I have my wife’s hands in my own. She’s staring at my line. She’s been crying since it appeared. We’ve been together since school. First loves and only loves and all that. I’ve never cheated on her. Never lied to her. Only white lies. The ‘sure you look great in leopard print’ kind of lies.
Now here it is. The biggest lie of them all, flowing from my neck and out of the wall, out of the house when it should be aiming straight for her.
You don’t love me, she says. Our lives have been a lie. I make a pact with her. I tell her I love her and that I don’t care what the lines say. I tell her we’ll ignore them. I tell her we’ve been happy so far and that’s not a lie. She looks down at her line. It’s thinner than mine. She says I’m right. She tells me we’ll get away, make the line so thin it’ll disappear.
We travel west. We don’t even save money, we just go. By the time we get to Germany both our lines are no more than a cotton thread.
We live this way for a while. Hand to mouth. I get work. She gets work. We watch the telly. It shows us soul-mates uniting. Happiness. Strangers becoming lovers.
We sell the telly. It does us no good. I check my line everyday and in the privacy of the bathroom, I know she checks hers.
We carry on. Until my wife comes to my office. I get a call from reception. She sounds panicky. Nervous. I go down to see her and she shows me her line. It’s getting fatter. It’s growing, thickening, expanding before me. With every millimetre she catches her breath.
They must be on an aeroplane, the other person, she says. They must be getting really close, really fast. I sit on the floor. The coldness of the tiles crawls up my back. It’s almost four inches thick, she says.
By the time evening comes her line is a metre wide. I inspect its growth like it’s a tumour. She paces the living room. By ten o’clock the line has doubled in thickness. I start doing stupid things like try to cut at it with a kitchen knife. I tell her we can leave. We could get on a train and go. But she tells me the line will always be there. A map leading straight to her, wherever she is. I beg her. She cries. I cry. But she cries less. Under the pale skin of her cheeks is a flush of pink. She’s excited. She’s nervous too, but not because of me.
She goes to the bathroom. When she comes out, she’s fixed her hair. She smells of perfume and mints. She sits on the settee and bites her nails as her line fills the length of her body. She breathes. In. Out. I breathe. In. Out.
There is a knock at the door.
C S Morgan is a creative writing student who, between coursework, sword fighting and sausage dogs, writes flash fiction in her spare time.
“David Jones, Software Engineer,” read the placard outside his cubical. He’d only been away for five minutes: a bathroom break and a quick trip by the vending machines. Sipping his Diet StimRev, Dave realized immediately that something was wrong.
His Magic 8-Ball was missing, again.
Lately, the thing had a way of disappearing and then reappearing in strange locations. The first time it reappeared on the counter in the break room. The second time it reappeared on the roof of his Hoverlectric coupe, which he had bought with his company discount. And the third time it reappeared on Dave’s favorite table in the cafeteria, the place where he decompressed in solitude for five lunches a week. Someone was trying to screw with his head, someone who knew his habits. A stalker? A prankster? But why the Magic 8-Ball? Only Dave knew the sentimental value of the thing. To a casual observer, it was a meaningless tchotchke, an eccentric paperweight.
The Magic 8-Ball was scratched in a few places, but it could still churn out advice and predictions like the day it left the factory. It reminded Dave of his mother. She had bought it for him at a flea market when he was ten years old, two years before she died. And some jerk had taken it three times already. Dave was fed up. He was going to catch this guy red handed. Dave had glued a small tracking chip, the kind people implanted under the skin of their pets and kids, into the groove between the top and bottom hemispheres. Unlike the last three times, Dave wouldn’t frantically pace the third floor, invading his coworkers’ space and making false accusations. This time, he would simply follow the tracker and put an end to this harassment once and for all.
The tracker pointed down, so Dave hopped on the elevator and got off on the second floor. Still down. The first floor was divided between sales and tech-support. The tracker pointed in the direction of tech-support. After walking up and down several rows of fake-polite support-folk, Dave finally spotted his Magic 8-Ball in the cubicle of “Allie Snyder, Customer Support Specialist”.
Dave was ready to rush in, but Allie was on a call. She spoke into her headset with a serious tone, but her boots were kicked up on her desk. Allie was dressed in black leather from head to toe. She had multiple earrings, a bar through one eyebrow, a ring through one nostril, and a stud poking out below her black lipstick. Her pitch-black hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
Over a year ago, Dave had been dating a prim and proper accountant. His parents loved her, but she eventually cheated on him with some guy from her firm. He wondered if that was why he was able to see through the thick eyeliner and the piercings and see a cute, quirky girl who shared his taste in antique toys. And besides, who was he to judge someone’s fashion choices anyway, standing there in his sandals, threadbare jeans, and black tee shirt with the symbol for Pi printed in gigantic white letters.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Allie said. “So the AI in your Hoverlectric 5000 responds with the word, ‘No,’ every time you give it a command?” Pause. “And you’ve tried rebooting the entire car?” Allie asked. She looked down at Dave’s Magic 8-Ball resting in her lap and read, “Outlook not so good.” She continued, “I’m going to have to put you on hold and forward your issue to an engineer.” Pause. “The current wait time is approximately twenty-three minutes. Thank you for riding with Hoverlectric.” Allie slapped the end-call button. “Jeez!”
“Hey,” Dave said softly, “I need my Magic 8-Ball back. It kind of has sentimental value.”
Swiveling in her chair, not looking a bit surprised, Allie said in a faux Southern belle voice with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead, “Oh, you caught me.” She handed the Magic 8-Ball back to Dave without a fuss. In her normal voice, she said, “Sorry for messing with your stuff, but this job can get really boring. You don’t know how much fun I’ve been having with that thing.”
“Oh, I know,” Dave sighed. “It’s a blast. It’s a shame they don’t make them anymore. And if you find one on the Net they usually want an arm and a leg for it. I got mine at a flea market when I was a kid. Maybe I could show you some good flea markets and antique shops around town. You might be able to get one cheap.”
“David Jones, Software Engineer,” Allie asked, smiling, “are you asking me out on a date?”
Dave looked down at the Magic 8-Ball in his hands and read, “Signs point to yes,” and they both laughed.
Rollin T Gentry lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife where he works as a software engineer for a large company. He reads and writes as much speculative fiction as possible during his spare time.
Trevor walked out of the office with a spring in his step. Why not? It was lunch time, the sun was shining, and he was having a great day. The blonde girl from the fourth floor had definitely smiled at him today in the lift. His morning coffee had been hot, sweet and spicy. In the team meeting he’d been able to correct Hamish Dappleby’s figures in front of half the office. Poor Hamish had been left red-faced and fuming, his eyes stabbing and his mouth clamped down in a hard line, with nothing to say. If ever a silence had been golden…
And now Trevor walked across the square, stopping to glance at tufts of summer flowers just newly opened this week. A ring of pink-purple-yellow surrounded the square. There were kids playing around the fountain; older kids with their jeans rolled up and their legs dipped up to the knees. A girl in a red cap was juggling; her sequined shoes continually caught the sunlight and winked brightly at the corner of his eye.
All around him food stalls were open for business; and his stomach appreciated the fact that he could choose between Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Hungarian; along with half a dozen other options. They all smelt mouth-watering.
All-in-all a great day to be alive.
As he headed across the grass his eyes were drawn to an odd pair, standing off to one side. He couldn’t quite decide what it was that was odd about them — a small man and a tall one. They both had a similarly odd haircut, longer on one side than the other and crudely layered. They wore matching sets of grey trousers reinforced around the knees, and matching jackets that the world might never be ready for. Their furtive, cautious glances at passersby made them blend in even less.
It was with resignation that he realised they were coming his way.
Still, good manners never hurt anyone. “Hi there.” He held his hand up in a half-wave.
Tall-man approached him. “Trevor Kipsley?”
Cautiously: “That’s me.”
“I need you to stop whatever it is you’re doing.”
The small one chimed in, “This is imperative. You stand in danger of destroying the world.”
The tall one stepped in again. “Allow me to explain. My colleague and I are from the future. And it’s a grim future. You would not want to live in it. But with your help we can change all that.”
“My help?” He felt as if he should be looking around to see who they were talking to behind him.
“We’ve traced the timelines, Mr Kipsley. We’ve checked them and double-checked them. This is the pivotal point. It’s the moment that changes it all. Whatever you intend on doing next is going to make or break the future.”
Trevor was dumbfounded. “But I was just trying to decide whether to have a hot-dog or a burrito for lunch.”
Tall-man looked him in the eye: “Choose carefully.”
Rosalie Kempthorne has no idea what it takes to write a good Author Bio, and all her previous attempts have so far come to nothing. She has much better luck writing stories. You can read more of her short stories on 365 Tomorrows, ABC Tales, or on her website: www.rosaliekempthorne.name.
The little hand on the clock pointed to four. That meant it was time for Mister Rogers. I sat cross-legged on the floor, bouncing when I saw that pretty little neighborhood with white-painted fences and no chain link. Finally, Mr. Rogers stepped inside, changed into his sweater, and put on his sneakers.
He sang Won’t You be my Neighbor?
“Yes!” I screamed. And then inside myself, I whispered, “Can I live there, too?”
Mama’s bracelets jangled behind me. I smelled her special juice, the stuff I wasn’t allowed to drink.
She put on red lipstick, looking at herself in her little round mirror. “Mama’ll be back soon, hun. Watch your little shows, and don’t answer the door or phone, okay?”
“Okay. When you coming back?”
“I said soon, Daisy. There’s some food in the fridge. Things’ll be better when I get you a new daddy.”
Mama dropped the mirror into her sparkly black purse. She wobbled like she was dizzy. She did that a lot. I think it was her heels. I couldn’t walk good in ‘em either.
She left, and I locked the door. The Neighborhood Trolley rang his friendly bells, I plopped back down to visit The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and pretended that I was Princess Thursday, Prince Tuesday’s sister. Daniel Lion and Henrietta Pussycat were my best friends. Lady Elaine Fairchilde scared me a little. Her long nose was bright red on the end; so were her cheeks, like Mama’s were every time she came home from the daddy-hunt.
Soon, the trolley came back to Mr. Rogers. He fed his fish and sang his goodbye song. I pulled my knees up to my chin. Dark crawled into the apartment, so I scooted closer to the TV’s light. My tummy grumbled. I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Mama’s juice bottles clinked against each other. The milk smelled bad, and all I found was a bowl of orange cheese with red things in it.
I held the cold bowl, closed my eyes, and made a wish: “I wish this cheese would turn into a cheeseburger.”
I got a spoon and ate a little of it, trying not to get any of those red things, while I watched commercials about Rice-a-Roni and Shake-n-Bake. Mama used to make that.
I laid on the couch with Grandma’s afghan. It smelled like mothballs and Marlboros. The news came on and put me to sleep.
I woke up to someone saying my name. “Daisy!”
“Mama?” I rubbed my eyes.
“Here, Daisy, look over here!”
I stretched real good and sat up. The TV was still on. The door was still locked. Mama wasn’t in the kitchen or our bedroom or the bathroom. Her Datsun wasn’t parked outside.
“Daisy, come here. We’re waiting for you.”
I looked at the TV.
Queen Sarah Saturday was looking right at me, waving her puppet arm. “Daisy, come. You can stay with us.”
My eyes got really big. I pointed at my chest. “Are you talking to me?”
“Why, yes, child. Take my hand.”
The screen went all fuzzy. But out came her hand. A real-looking one. She had pretty nails and gold rings. I reached out real slow, and she took my hand.
“Now, stand up,” she said.
“Close your eyes, hold your breath, and I’ll pull. Ready?”
“Ready.” I thought I was dreaming, but it was a nice dream, so I did what she said.
She pulled me, and I felt all crackly like static on my clothes in winter. Then I landed on my feet.
“You can open your eyes now,” she said.
I was in the castle of King Friday and Queen Sarah Saturday in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. And it was big, like a real one.
She placed a crown on my head. “Welcome, Princess Thursday.”
She didn’t look like a puppet. None of them did. They were real people, with real skin and hair. The queen and king and Prince Tuesday hugged me. Tuesday showed me to my new room. There was a big bed with a pink roof over it, lots of toys, and even a TV.
Tuesday pointed to the screen. “You can see your old life there, but they can’t see you. If you want to return, step through the screen again. If you want to stay, change the channel, and you’ll be here forever.”
“You’ll like it here, and you’ll never go hungry.” He pointed to a table filled with fruit, bread, cheese, and pies.
My mouth watered.
“I’ve always wanted a sister, but you must decide for yourself.”
I sat in front of the TV and saw our apartment. Mama came through the door. She yelled for me, but it sounded far away. She went all over yelling, “Daisy!” She picked up the phone and hit three buttons. Just a second later, she said, “It’s my daughter! She’s missing.”
Mama hung up, started crying. She took a drink of her juice. In a little while, there was a loud bang on the door. She hid the bottle and answered it.
Two policemen came in. One wrote in his notebook, while the other talked to Mama. She got louder. He got louder. He put her in handcuffs. She cried and cried, and they walked her to the door.
Tuesday said I could stay forever. But forever meant not seeing Mama again. She’d never know what happened to me.
“Mama,” I whispered, moving closer.
She got away and fell on the floor, kicking at the cops with her heels. I looked back at all that food, but I had to help Mama, so I put my fingers through the screen and felt that crackly feeling.
Then she yelled, “I told that little brat not to go nowhere! I’m a good mama to her!”
My stomach rumbled. Mama couldn’t take care of me or make my wishes come true. Only one person could do that.
I turned the channel.
Mysti Parker is a wife, mother, and shameless chocoholic. While her first love is romance, including an award-winning historical soon to be published, she enjoys writing flash fiction (the weirder the better) and children’s stories. She resides in Buckner, KY with her husband, three children and too many pets.