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.

The Two Doors

Jason frowned at the app on his phone and felt the frustration grow inside his chest. The red line pointed jaggedly downard, indicating a loss of close to $14,000 in one day. 

“Daddy? Can you push me on the swing?”

“Not right now,” Jason replied, “Um…I’ll do it in a minute. I have to finish something here first. But go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”

Jason was vaguely aware of his four-year-old daughter’s figure bouncing away into the distance. He was engrossed in his stocks, trying to decide what his next move would be. He glanced up for a moment when he heard his wife come through the back door and watched her silently as she went to push their daughter on the swing.

He should have gotten out sooner. If he had gotten out sooner, he wouldn’t have lost so much. In fact, if he had never gotten in at all, he would be much better off right now. He would have to try to make up for these losses tomorrow, there was probably no fixing it today. 

Jason was getting ready to put his phone away when he felt it vibrate with an incoming call. Who did he know in Oracle, Arizona? Out of curiosity, he tapped the green icon and put the phone to his ear. 

“Jason speaking.”

“Hi Jason. You don’t know me, but I have a story for you.”

“Uh…who is this? What kind of story?”

“I don’t go by any name that you would understand. But the story I have is one you need to hear.”

Jason smirked, but decided to humor this mysterious caller.

“Go ahead,” he said, “I’m listening.”

The mysterious speaker began.  

Not so long ago, there was a boy who grew up poor. He wandered the streets of his neighborhood shoeless, unwashed and unattended. No one paid any attention to the boy or the others like him, just let him pass them by like another shadow cast by the setting sun.

The boy resented being poor. He resented the way he went unnoticed. The boy often found himself wandering down roads where the big houses sat like great proud beings. He eyed their large square roofs and columns reaching for the heavens. He watched from the corner of his squinted lids the figures that exited the ornate front doors, and wondered what it would be like to stand on those porch steps. He wondered what it would be like to see himself pass by like a weed carried on the summer breeze. 

Like a weed his thoughts grew tangled, frustrated and confused. He wondered why some people lived in great houses and others lived in great despair. He felt the great despair carve its way through his heart, creating a vast emptiness within that he was desperate to fill. He carved the great houses in his memory and felt the warmth of the setting summer sun give life to the determination that grew there. 

Someday he would be rich. 

The boy lay in his bed at night itching from the fleas that infested his sheets and itching with the desire that ensnared his thoughts. 

Rich. 

It was not enough to have enough. Someday he would have everything. He drifted into slumber and in his dreams it was so. In his dreams people noticed him, not as a weed, but as the rarest form of flower, jaws dropping in awe as he passed by.

The boy slowly grew into a man. As his heart expanded with age, so did all within it. The cavernous emptiness tripled in size but even greater was the burning desire to do better. The boy who grew to a man was determined to play professional football, encouraged by friends and family members and coaches who all said he had what it takes. Someday he would be a millionaire–he knew this with an aching intensity that matched the ache of hunger that still tormented the pit of his stomach.

One night the man drove home from football tryouts in his car that glared back at him with a maddening drabness he tried hard to ignore. Tryouts had gone well. The man was entangled in thoughts of millions of fans and millions of dollars and failed to notice the millions of raindrops accumulating in the sky above him. 

The rain fell. 

It fell quietly at first, then grew with a sudden ferocity that even an attentive driver would have failed to foresee. The man wondered why the car drifted left even though he was tugging the wheel to the right. He did not have time to wonder anything else before a sudden impact left him senseless. 

When the man opened his eyes, all was quiet. He was standing in a hallway filled with light. Two identical doors opposite him ominously loomed–on each, an inscription. The man stepped closer to read. 

The inscription on the left door read: Here lies ten million dollars. Open and it shall be yours. 

The inscription on the right door read: Here lies inner peace. Open and it shall be yours. 

The man read each inscription aloud and laughed. What an easy choice. With ten million dollars, inner peace was a given. He grasped the left doorknob and pulled. 

When the man stepped through the door, the hallway faded and he found himself in a hospital bed. He had been in a car accident and suffered a head injury. During his hospital stay, his left leg had been amputated in a case of mistaken identity and, as a result, he was awarded a ten million dollar settlement. 

Rich.

The man lay awake at night and felt the emptiness on the left side of his bed where his leg once had been. With his ten million dollar settlement he had purchased the finest prosthetic that money could buy. Professional football was no longer an option, but he was finally rich. Nothing else mattered.

He went back to his hometown and shared his wealth with his family. He paid off their debt, bought them cars, sent them to school. His family was grateful, but they often came back to him for more. Some squandered his gifts by going back into debt immediately after he had paid it off. Some used the money he shared to indulge in substance abuse and partying. Some failed the classes he had so generously paid for.

The man felt the emptiness inside him grow. 

He became less generous over time. His initial ten million was now down to seven million, which he carefully invested and tended to, determined to grow it over time. Maybe if he could get to one hundred million dollars he would feel the glow he had been expecting to feel from ten million. At night he watched football by himself, or played video games. 

He awoke one morning to a ray of sunlight warming his cheek. He had been focused on his finances for days, barely taking a break to eat or shower. He should probably leave his house today, at least once. 

The man walked down the street, unwashed and unattended. Though he had shoes on his feet, he went unnoticed by those he passed. 

Unsure why, he felt resentment grow within his heart. He was a millionaire. He owned the nicest house in the richest neighborhood, and still these people paid him no more attention than as if he were a weed carried by the wind. 

The man felt the empty space in his heart fill with anger. 

“Look at me! Why won’t you people look at me? Do you know who I am? I could buy your souls if I wanted to!”

The people on the street around him began to murmur. Several took out their phones and made hushed calls, casting concerned glances his way. The police arrived. 

The man was taken into custody for failing to cooperate when questioned. Noticing his missing leg, unshaven face and unwashed clothes, the police assumed he was homeless. Likely mentally ill. 

Defeated, the man allowed the officers to lead him away. Tears burned the corners of his eyes, and he looked with loathing at the pitying glances cast upon him. Anger slowly turned to worthlessness inside his millionnaire heart. 

Jason waited in silence after the caller had spoken the final words of the story.

“What do you think of that man, Jason?”

“I think the man was a fool,” he responded without hesitation. 

“Why do you think that?”

“Because, why would you choose ten million dollars when you could have inner peace? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want ten million dollars as much as the next guy, but everyone knows inner peace is more valuable.”

“Jason. You are the man in the story.”

“No I’m not,” Jason shot back, offended. “What do you even mean by that? I’m not a millionaire, and I know the value of inner peace.”

There was silence for a moment before the voice began again.

“The hallway facing the two doors in the story represents the present moment. In every moment you are presented with a choice: inner peace or striving after something external. Every moment that you spend worrying about your stocks instead of focusing on the peace found in that moment, you choose the left door. Every time you look to the past with regret, you choose the left door. Every time you believe that wealth will bring you happiness, or that happiness can only be obtained in some future moment, you choose the left door.”

Jason felt a lump grow in his throat and thought of his daughter.

“When you choose the right door that leads to inner peace, all other things will fall into place. This is a choice that does not happen once in a lifetime, but happens in every moment throughout your entire lifetime.”

The line went dead. 

Jason looked at his phone. The little red graph was beginning to creep back up again. If he got back in now–

“Daddy! Look how high mommy’s pushing me on the swing!”

Jason looked up at his daughter. Her tiny frame soared through the air and became silhouetted by the sun for an instant before she swung backward again toward her mother’s outstretched arms.

He was stunned by the sight of her. All thoughts left his mind as he watched her, glowing like a tiny Angel.

In that moment, Jason realized he was already in the heaven he had been striving for.

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