The Dream Chaser

“Mommy, I’m scared.”

“Scared of what, sweetheart?”

“I’m scared of having bad dreams.”

“Ah,” I said, “I have just the thing. Let me go get it.”

I ran swiftly back to my room and looked around. I needed something. An object. Something happy and comforting.

A scarf? Yes, this sky blue scarf that I rarely used would be perfect. Brightly colored. Nice and soft.

But was that convincing enough?

No, no. It needed more. It needed to smell good.

A few drops of jasmine essential oil was enough to saturate the scarf in a cloud of perfume, the essence of relaxation and joy.

I returned to my son.

“What is it?” He asked.

Oh shoot. A name.

“It’s a…um—it’s a dream…chaser. Yes. It’s a dream chaser, it chases away bad dreams. Because bad dreams don’t like bright colors, softness and good smells.”

I saw the relief in his eyes as I draped the dream chaser across his chest. He bunched a corner of it into his fist and held on tight.

“Would you like me to lay here with you until you fall asleep?” I asked my five year old son.

“You don’t want to do that,” he said, “it takes me forever to fall asleep.”

“Then I’ll wait with you forever.”

He was asleep in five minutes.

(C) 2022 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Apple

I was running late for work—and by late, I mean I left my house closer to 4:15 than 4:00AM.

As usual, I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before, but caffeine was already infiltrating my system, and I had an apple in my left hand—first breakfast.

Like so many mornings before, I dabbed the juice from my chin with the back of my sleeve, enjoying the crisp sound and taste of the first bite. It was the perfect driving snack. No trash, no crumbs, and though the juice was sometimes a little sticky, it wiped away easily enough.

I admit, I was rushing. I may even have been speeding that morning, though I would never admit to it. It was too dark to read the speed limit signs anyway.

But, apparently, my level of hurrying could not keep pace with that of the truck behind me.

I frowned and squinted at the light beaming into my car through the rear window. I could see two large headlights behind me, looming like the eyes of a giant feline ready to pounce.

Not one to be easily intimidated, I maintained my relatively reasonable speed, and took another bite of my apple, now illuminated by the headlights behind me.

I paused mid-chew.

What was that dark area I had seen?

It was the seeds. Yeah, it was the apple core. The seeds…it was the…please God let it be the seeds…did that last bite taste a little bitter?

It was dark again.

I swallowed almost against my will.

Just the seeds.

The truck aggressively pushed closer to my rear bumper again, and, half scared to even look, I glanced down at my once more illuminated apple.

It was a dead maggot.

Yes, that’s right. There was a dead maggot in the middle of this apple I had just bitten into. Was it a whole maggot or had I eaten part of it?

I didn’t want to know.

The cold morning air hit my face as I chucked first breakfast out my window, and tried to suppress the gag that was attempting to eject potential maggot parts from my stomach—only because there was no place to pull over.

It was a pretty harrowing experience, one I am unlikely to forget.

But in the end, I learned to be grateful for impatient truck drivers, something I never would have expected otherwise.

I also learned to inspect my fruit before leaving the house.

Apple Maggot

(C) 2022 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Golden Scarab

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with insects. Beetles, in particular–jewel beetles.

Like so many others (or…you know, at least some others) I was enraptured by their brightly colored metallic exoskeletons. I couldn’t think of anything more beautiful.

I had this dream of becoming a beetle hunter someday. I planned to travel to the Amazon rainforest to collect rare specimens (got the idea from a National Geographic) and sell them to collectors for a high price.

That dream didn’t exactly pan out.

Instead, the only beetles I possessed were those I purchased off the internet from faraway places, and the closest I got to any kind of jungle was the pile of laundry I was sorting through–filled with its own unique colors and smells.

Boys.

Speaking of which…where were they?

Knowing better than to let my toddlers roam free throughout the house, I dropped the clothes in my hand and rushed down the stairs.

Ah, there they were. Playing with cars in the living room.

“Don’t worry mommy,” my three-year-old said, “I killed it!”

“Killed what, sweetie?” I asked with a half-smile, watching as he aggressively smashed something with a toy car.

“The bug!”

That’s when I noticed it.

There was a blank space on the wall where a frame had previously hung.

“Wait!” I cried out.

But it was too late.

By the time I reached my son, all that was left of my $50 Golden Scarab from Costa Rica was a pile of broken bits and a single golden wing.

My son was so proud.

Crushed Golden Scarab

(C) 2022 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

Silent Storm

I find myself
In this quiet space
Against soft pillow
I rest my face
And thoughts that swirl
Like silent storm
Bundled up
In blanket warm
The ebb and flow
Of inner tide
Lying still
This endless ride
And I the rider
Changed by day
I nightly find
The price I pay
The dark without
And in my mind
A wordless shout
A thought unkind
And into sleep I finally drift
Till in my dreams I find a rift
Then eyes wide open
I feel the fear
The death that’s creeping
Ever near
And up I sit
My back held straight
“I’m not ready—
Please, just wait.”
In and out
I hear my breath
And know for now
I’ve chased off death
Then back to sleep
My eyes shut tight
I make it through another night
Over again
This game we play
Both of us knowing
He’ll win someday
But not tonight
And not tomorrow
Or the day after that
Still more time I borrow
I borrow more time
In this quiet space
Against soft pillow I rest my face
And thoughts that swirl
Under blanket warm
Rage inside
Like silent storm

Silent Storm

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

Leaves

Blue sky fractured between gold and red foliage flaking from the branches above. Soft brown eyes followed the leaves as they made their final descent to rejoin the earth and gradually decay into nothing. Her mind wandered to thoughts of the past as she lay feeling the cold earth between blades of struggling grass. Blades of shoulders connected with tree roots, gently reminding her that this patch of earth was theirs. 

There was no patch of earth that belonged to her and her wandering mind. Borrowed patches of earth quietly tolerated her existence, waiting for her to move on. A nearby can of some off-brand cola, crushed and abandoned by its previous owner, reflected her pain. Half buried in the dirt, aluminum gleamed in stark contrast to the natural landscape surrounding it. Rust crept from its sharp edges, spreading outward. 

She wanted to keep the leaves from falling. She wanted to gather up the leaves that had already fallen and put them back in their place. They didn’t belong where they would be mindlessly trampled, forgotten, turned to unrecognizable brown and then to dust. 

The stem of a leaf twisted and spun between her warm fingers in the chilly air, its life seemingly prolonged by her own being. The moment she let it slip from her fingers it would join the others in their fate. Yet even in her grasp she would eventually watch the colors fade. 

She wondered if the leaves minded fading and falling. Was her heart crying out for something that could not even recognize her pain? 

Who was she kidding. This wasn’t about leaves. This was about life. What was the point? Seriously? Why bother being born, bursting with life and color only to fade and fall, to be pushed and pulled and tormented by experiences and emotions that she couldn’t understand. The distance between branch and earth mirrored the distance between life and death, here and there. This world and the next. 

How could someone love you one instant and be gone the next? Unlike the fading of the leaves, there had been no warning other than the slight feeling of unease within her chest. Nothing outward had changed, yet she underestimated the invisible changes that can occur deep within a heart.

“Do you still love me?” he asked.

“Of course.”

Then the pause. 

The gap between the branches and the earth. 

“Do you still love me?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Her whole world shattered by the words “I don’t know.” 

Who knew life could be so fragile?

The sound of a far-off engine turned her face skyward to see the silver speck of a plane flying southwest, a thin white trail following behind. She had never been on a plane before and watched curiously, wondering what it would be like to just go somewhere. Do something for herself for once.

A single leaf drifted from a far off branch, yet this time she realized the leaf didn’t simply fall to the ground–it danced.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Black Hole

Dust and grime stuck to fingertips as they slid across hardwood floor. The edge of a faded flip flop revealed its location behind sagging shoebox, just barely out of reach. A cold nose nudged his shoulder as he wondered how the footwear had gotten pushed so far under his bed

Belly to floor, he lunged forward and grasped the strap. In his haste to remove it from its hideaway, his elbow made contact with cardboard. The shoebox spilled its contents across the floor. 

A momentary hesitation indicated his desire to leave everything in the dust and proceed with his mission, but experience had taught him better. With a sweeping motion of his arm, he drew the scattered objects from the blackness beneath his bed and into the glow cast by his window.

Staring back at him were little trinkets and scraps of paper. These were reminders of people or events that were important. A barely legible ticket stub reminded him of the first concert he had ever gone to without his parents, and the feeling of freedom that came with it. He silently named the faces in a photograph taken outside his highschool, shining with the naive belief in all the wonderful opportunities that life had to offer. His mouth twitched into a half-smile when he saw the Star Trek action figure–vintage, 1974. It was Spock. 

Spock was rotated in his hands a few times. The chipped paint and mildly disproportionate facial features did not take away from the serene expression on his face. 

He wished he could be like Spock sometimes. 

Emptiness began to open up inside his chest as he felt his body grow heavy with emotion. Eyes scanned the room, seeking relief, but finding only more pain. Dirty laundry strewn across the floor in lifeless heaps, giving off the odor of disappointment. An empty carton of chocolate milk on his bedside table smugly reminded him that he had spent the entire previous day binge watching TV. Amazon boxes, gutted and abandoned, packing material drooping from the side, seemed a summary of his existence.

Closing his eyes, he unwillingly confronted the darkness of his own mind. It was vast and crushing. It was a black hole within his very being, threatening to suck him in and annihilate him. It was extinguished motivation. It was despair. It was death.

Spock resisted the crushing force of his left hand. As he loosened his grip, he felt the phrase from Season 2 Episode 1 ignite the darkness within him. 

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but is often true.

Most of the people in his high school picture were married now. A few had kids. All had good jobs and beautiful homes. Still, in their eyes he recognized the black hole. 

Happiness was not wanting or having. It was a choice made in every moment. 

Cold wet nose nudged his shoulder. 

He made his choice.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

Dark Magic

Toes blanketed in warm sand, face turned upward absorbing the energy of the sun, a gentle breeze whispered this is heaven. The sentiment was echoed by the melodic voices of the gulls overhead, harmonizing with the distant hush of waves against shore. The faint taste of salt on lips and hair made wild by the wind closed the separation between body and environment.

This was heaven on earth. 

Heaven on earth was now a heaven that existed only in memory. Summer vacation had come and gone as if it had never been more than a wish. Back in the wasteland of first semester, nothing remained except patches of peeling skin, souvenirs from days spent with too much sun and too little sunscreen. 

The cold gray prison block euphemistically referred to as “school” had thoroughly eradicated any sensation of heaven–or freedom for that matter. With its humid classrooms that smelled of sweat, dust, bleach and the occasional fart, this was either hell or at least purgatory. 

High school is such a magical time someone once had said. 

Magic? Maybe dark magic. 

High school did have a certain power. It had the power to make time itself slow to a sickening pace, each tick of the clock on the wall smirking at its own laziness. This dark magic manifested as the slow droning of the chemistry teacher’s voice, invisibly closing eyelids and setting hands to doodling. It was the instigator of tapping feet under tabletops, nails chewed to the skin and contagious yawns. It was the wandering attention, the tears secretly shed in bathroom stalls and the smoke rising from cigarettes in that one corner everyone called “the pit.” 

It was the mechanical pencil that had run out of lead.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Eyes silently counted. 

Dark magic was channeled by the jarring emittance of the bell and the resulting rush for the door. It was the cacophony of chairs thrust backward, zippers yanked shut and voices breaking out into nervous chatter. Dark magic was embedded in the rush for a door that did not spell freedom. 

It spelled lunch. 

Dark magic weaved its way through the narrow hallway of competing elbows and toes and spread itself throughout the large space occupied by slabs of compressed wood generously called tables. It sank into the cold metal bars attached to benches and chewed into the cold gum stuck underneath. It was the smell different from all other smells. It was the merging of the aroma of cheap pizza, chicken nuggets and sweaty socks. It was the clinging of sticky floors to soles of sneakers as bodies made their way to unspoken assigned seats. 

Dark magic coerced soggy-breaded sandwiches into grudging mouths. It traded bags of crushed Cheetos for broken pretzels, celery sticks for carrots and sweaty juice boxes for cartons of lukewarm strawberry milk. It inspired rushed conversations, flirtatious encounters and hurt feelings hidden behind folded arms. It wove its insecurities and fixations on imperfections into developing brains. 

Dark magic was–

Ringgggggggggg

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

This is My Powerlift

“Why would you want to look like that?”

It baffled her each time she heard it, especially coming from another woman. Far from wanting to be more masculine, she strove to add to her existing femininity—that of a strong, healthy, capable body.

“Why would you not want to look like this?” she shot back as she walked away.

The echo of metal on metal matched her thoughts. With 255 lbs at her feet, she grasped the bar.

One—

This is my brand of feminism. My rebellion. My refusal to be seen as you want me to be seen. This is me being seen for who I am.

Two—

This is your discouragement shattering under the weight of my determination. Your disbelief proven unfounded. Your insecurities reflected back to you instead of projected onto me. 

Three—

This is my silent refusal to participate in the charade of your dialogue with one of two possible outcomes: the outcome in which you are right, and the outcome in which I am wrong.

Rest.

Most debates have no winner. The purpose of most debates is to soothe the person on the other end who can walk away feeling accomplished at having been so open-minded.

No longer a glass ceiling, she felt the bonds of an invisible cage surrounding her. Society had granted permission to rise to the top, yet still insisted she stay within the limits of the acceptable. Sit at the table, but speak no controversy, speak with a tone that questions its own right to be heard. Better yet—do not speak at all.

So much for a free country.

One—

Is your freedom my freedom? Is your pain my pain? Have your assumptions like cookie cutters reshaped your perception of my experiences? Of me?

Two—

Is your flag my flag? Are those my stars scattered across your field of Navy Blue? Which of these stripes belongs to me, or do they all belong to you?

Three—

Am I sensitive or am I jaded? Am I irrational or am I angry? Am I that stereotype for feeling, or am I simply what you made me? 

Rest.

She was the one who refused to take minutes at meetings filled with male faces, peering at her as if it were her duty or at least it as if it wasn’t theirs. With each refusal, eyes rolled and thoughts crossed faces. Overly sensitive. Angry feminist. Words unspoken yet loud enough to be heard.

One—

I am not servant to your belief system. I am not here to enable your blindness to truth. I am not here to spare your feelings at the detriment of my own.

Two—

I am not here to be weak so that you can feel strong. I am here to take my power back. I am here to lift myself up. I am here, not to grow strong, but to celebrate that I am strong already.

Three—

This is my brand of feminism. This is my rebellion. This is my powerlift.

Rest.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.

The Idea Man

He ran weathered fingers through receding hairline, subconsciously taking note of how far back it had retreated the last few years. Once known for his gleaming waves, he was now more gleaming forehead. No matter. Immersed in wandering thoughts, he had no care for the trivialities of life, receding hairlines being among them.

There was once a running joke in his family that if he had learned something useful, like math, he could have been an Einstein. Or if he had dedicated more of his time to a craft, perhaps a Picasso. But he never seemed to do much with his thoughts other than jot them down on scraps of yellow paper which he pinned to his walls or folded and tucked into crevices or stacked in piles throughout his house.

For this, they called him the Idea Man.

The Idea Man sat on his porch, beads of sweat forming on his bare head as the late afternoon sun made itself known. He secretly liked to be called the Idea Man, even though it was derogatory. His friends and family laughed, but ideas were his greatest treasure. Each idea he jotted down became a souvenir of the long, winding rivers that brought him there. Each yellow scrap of paper like a butterfly resting on his wall, ready to take flight should a stranger’s gaze ever be cast in its direction.

The Idea Man had been engaged in excogitation for so long his eyes barely perceived the sun sinking toward the horizon until it reached the edge in a blaze of color.

The beautiful sunset, his mother once called it.

Memories flooded in, and soon reflections of his mother seated beside him on porch steps arose in a tide of nostalgia. Her sheltering arm around him, they watched.

“Look at the sky,” she would say, “Look at how beautiful it is! You see that cloud? Doesn’t it look like you could swim in it? Look at how the sunbeams are streaming down from beneath that one!”

His mother had a beautiful imagination. Beautiful like the sunset. Full of color and life and beauty. His mother was a star now, floating somewhere high above the beautiful sunset, looking down on it even as he looked up.

Moisture gathered in his eyes. The Idea Man allowed the emotion to wash through him and shifted his now blurry gaze toward darkening sky. Almost imperceptibly, the stars had already begun to appear across the lake of black above him.

Brave stars, he thought.

Stars must be brave to exist in space like that, shining brilliantly despite the darkness and emptiness. The stars seemed to shine with all their might, casting lifelines on anything within reach.

He read somewhere that when a star collapses it becomes a black hole. It seemed to him the star’s final attempt to quell the loneliness—to pull anything and everything into itself, yet resulting only in destruction.

People were both stars and black holes, shining and grasping at various intervals.

He paused. Receding hairline soon bobbed up and down as the Idea Man fished in his pocket for a crumpled scrap of yellow paper.

He wrote.

(C) 2021 Barbara Gray – no content may be used or reproduced without permission of the author.