Month: March 2018

Been There, Done That

Dr. Rafsanjani:

Please let me be your guinea pig.

I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.

How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onwards, has been a byproduct of your experiment.

I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was perfect. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, if not as close as I’d have liked.

And John was perfect in the technical sense as well. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.

Even his attitude had been perfect, at one point. He’d been the consummate overachiever throughout middle school. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends; our old social circle disintegrated. He was as kind to me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.

“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” The high school John and I attended conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for various activities and accomplishments—class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive and so forth. The winning class got a day off in May. A victory for the seniors was usually a given. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.

In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as the other class officers dogpiled on top of her. He had been an island of stillness amidst our storm of joy, with that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.

And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.

“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”

“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.

I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought to avoid the subject; it was too painful for me to think about. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth, or the way you pick at a scab. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.

“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just…be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.

“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary, how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.

I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”

I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.

But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”

I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re just gonna stew in a corner, like you have been all year?” I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was mad at him, angry that he was being less than himself, angry that he was cheating the world of the amazing person I knew him to be. “You’re gonna do nothing?”

He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”

Like Brownies

We’re lucky we had kids before the Antiglians brought us here. All creatures, save for the most beautiful, had been sterilized upon arrival.

They placed us with other human families in a small section of the sprawling interplanetary refuge. I haven’t seen any other Earth animals, but sometimes I swear an elephant’s trumpet rises above the mix of alien sounds. My wife, Maura, shrugs. It’s all white noise to me, Noah.

Our new home is a cookie-cutter four bedroom with all the creature comforts—except a roof. I’ve gotten used to alien faces hovering above when I eat, bathe, hell, even when I take a dump, but I couldn’t stand those columns of eyeballs watching me have sex. I can only do it completely under the covers. I miss seeing Maura’s body.

Jim slams a toy Ferrari into my foot and mutters, “Sorry, Dad.”

“Ooh!” Cindy says in that way kids have when they expect their siblings to get in trouble. She clutches a stuffed puppy that reminds me of Tuppins, who died just before we left Earth.

I rub my foot. “It’s okay, but why don’t you put the car away so we can work on long division?”
“No.” Jim scowls. “I’m never gonna need it.”

I’d said the same thing to my mom when I was his age. She told me that no one in our family had ever gotten a degree, that I could be the first.

I never expected to be the last.

Jim is already on the other side of the room, chasing Cindy with the car. She trips, sending the dog flying through the air, and a group of Antiglians point their quivering, anemone-tipped appendages at my daughter. I scoop her up to shield her from their view.

“Put me down, Dad!” She wriggles free. “I’m fine.”

A thump-plop-thump outside sends the kids rushing to the window. Our trough brims with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and a pumpkin pie. It’s always seventy-two degrees in the habitat, but it must be November on Earth. Antiglians are obsessed with customs and calendars. This is our first Thanksgiving here.

Maura helps me set the table. “Everything smells wonderful, Noah. A delicious feast with no pots and pans to scrub. What could be better?”

“It’s engineered.”

She takes a bite of stuffing. “Mmm. Well, they can engineer my food until the day I die.”
Jim scoops massive heaps of everything on his plate. I serve little Cindy.

“This is so good, but I really hope we get pizza tomorrow,” Jim says between bites. “The pizza here is out of this world.”

Maura and Cindy laugh.

“Well, technically, it is in this world. It’s out of our world.”

Jim rolls his eyes. “Not mine. Everything here is better.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d backpacked through the Rockies. Eaten a peach fresh off the tree.” My voice catches. “You’ve never even seen the ocean.”

“Yeah?” Jim glares. “Well at least here I—”

“Boys! Quiet.” Maura almost never raises her voice.

“Sorry, Mom,” Jim mumbles.

She turns to me. “Do you have something to say, Noah?”

“I thought you wanted me to be quiet.”

Maura mutters something about stubborn, old mules, and I feel like an ass.

“Sorry.” I kiss her cheek.

“Scoundrel,” she says with a shake of her head.

“Who wants to play shuttle racer on the Holo after dinner?” I ask.

Jim grins. “You’re going down, Dad!”

He makes good on his threat. We all play until the sleeping signal flashes.

The kids scamper off to their bedrooms so they’ll be rested for the morning petting session: two hours in a pen while the Antiglians feed us treats that taste like brownies. Those who put on a show get the most.

I don’t dance.

Maura settles into bed while I toss and turn.

“Noah?” She yawns. “Did you skip your sleep aid?”

“Yeah. I feel like thinking.” I stare at the sky. With the artificial lights, it never gets dark enough in the enclosure to see the stars. A couple Antigilans skitter by above, tentacles entwined.
“Earth again? I don’t know why you romanticize the place. You had to wear a bulletproof vest to go outside and scrounge for food.”

I snuggle against her. “Don’t you remember when we used to sit on the dock, dip our toes into the water, and listen to the loons?”

“We were teenagers.” She turns to face me and takes my hands. “Don’t you remember the stench of the dead fish? The loons didn’t last much longer.” Her voice fades as her eyes close. “It’s Thanksgiving. We’re together, and I’m thankful…”

Restless, I head toward the family room. Everyone was allowed to bring one memento, and I chose my college degree. I need to hold it, to feel like a Bachelor of Mathematics, not some exotic novelty.
Halfway down the hall, I slip and land with a thud. That stupid Ferrari. I stifle a curse, hoping I hadn’t woken anyone up. Whimpers and soft footsteps grow closer. Damn.

“Daddy.” Sobbing, Cindy throws her arms around me.

“Shh, baby. It’s okay.”

“The noises.” She pulls back, eyes wide with fear. “Are the soldiers here?”

“No, sweetheart. They’re light years away. They can’t hurt us.”

I carry her back to her room, tuck her in, and place the dog in her arms. “You’re safe.” I stroke the silky wisps of her hair until her eyes flutter closed. “You’re safe.”

Last Thanksgiving, we shared a can of room-temperature soup. The hollows of Tuppins’ ribs danced like tiger stripes in the light of our only candle—spring blossom scent or something like that—so artificial it made me queasy. I hadn’t even seen a goddamn flower since before Cindy was born. She’ll be five soon.

They gave us a cake for Jim’s birthday. The kids’ faces were round and happy as we sang, their voices clear and strong. Back in my own room, I pull the covers up to my shoulders. Tomorrow, I’d teach Cindy to add. I could use pizza to explain fractions.

I turn back to Maura, sleeping sweet and peaceful, close my eyes, and remember her words.
We’re together, and I’m thankful.

I’ve always liked brownies.

Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. A two-time Boston Marathon qualifier, the only thing that matches her enthusiasm for creating stories is running. And cheesecake.

The Jade Star

A bright moon glistens in a velvet black sky. An unseen dog barks bloody murder as a Clean-Bot 2100 purrs its way through a wide and spotless street.

Around the street there are no cars, no signs of life except for a lone woman. She frantically runs ahead of the Clean-Bot as if she fears it will suck her up like trash.

The woman, her ginger hair swinging from side to side, reaches the end of the street where there is a tall water tower, at least fifty feet high. Painted on the tower’s side, in vibrant red and blue, is a big “Milton Brothers Studios.”

Frantically the woman climbs the first rung of the tower’s ladder then the second and the third.

At the top of the water tower there are no eyes on the ginger haired starlet, no studio cameras, no klieg lights, no adoring fans. There is only a clear view of the back lot with its twenty-three cavernous soundstages, dozens of cranes, trucks, fake palm trees, sword and sandal set backdrops, even a water tank that could hold the Titanic.

The Milton Brothers Studios, maker of the latest and greatest in filmed entertainment, is at rest for a few hours. Perhaps a security camera has caught her exit from her dressing room. More likely the guards are asleep on the job.

At the top, along a small guardrail, the ginger haired woman does not look out at the whole of Bollywood West, does not admire the view.

Instead, she fights, kicks, flails.

Someone, or something, a shape of shimmering light is next to her, pushing her, grabbing at her, tearing into her leg.

She loses her balance, falls over the guardrail. Her hands go out to her side, as if she is Esther Williams diving into a pool, ready to synchronize with a bevy of bathing beauties.

Only it’s not water below; it’s a concrete jungle.

By her ginger haired head, spilling over the black pavement, a pool of crimson blood forms like a seahorse drifting toward a distant ocean.

With an efficient silence the Clean-Bot 2100 rolls back and sucks up the blood around her head.

Tin-foil Moon

Albert sat in his deck chair and watched the small green dot approach his nephew’s house by the banks of the river. The lights had gone out earlier that evening and now the wind was up, the dry air pregnant with static electricity. His nephew’s kids were scrubbing their feet against the acrylic doormat and zapping each other, screaming their delight.

The sounds cut off.


Trembling slightly, Albert reached up to check his tin-foil hat. Still there. He stood and turned to the chairs where his family should be. Gone. They were all gone.

“You,” he said, pointing to the empty seats, “you didn’t get ready. Ha-haa. I told you… I told you, but you didn’t, did you?”

The hats he’d made them lay scattered across the table, rocking gently in the candle-scented breeze. Untouched, like always. His gaze moved through the foil shapes, past the half empty wine glasses, over a cling wrapped salad and all the way to the silver top-knob of the pepper-grinder out at the far corner of the table. A white napkin fluttered against it. Waves on the sea against a lonely lighthouse.

“Haa.” Emptiness hollowed his chest and his arm dropped to his side. “So what now, what now? I’m all alone again, aren’t I?”

He clutched himself tight and gnawed at his knuckles. He was used to being lonely, but it was so much worse when he was on his own.

His eyes darted to a movement under the table–a piece of squirming blue. Sally, in her new blue dress.


The plastic tablecloth bunched together as little fingers tried to pull it to the ground.

“Sally? What’re you doing?”

“Jason keeps trying to zap me,” she said, voice sinking to a groan.

Albert eyed the electrifying carpet mat with distrust, but it lay dormant without a child to goad it.

“Well, he’s stopped now,” he said. He listened to the evening again. No neighborhood voices, no doors banging, no cars driving by. “It’s all stopped.”

He walked over and poked the carpet mat with his toe. No response.

“Um. It’s okay–you can come out, if you like.”

Sally’s head appeared between the large wooden chairs, blonde hair rumpled and askew under her tin-foil pirate hat. She dragged herself upright, pulling at her frock to unravel the twists spiraling around her torso. Albert watched her, his mouth twitching in and out of a smile. He liked Sally. She liked his hats.

“So where’s Mum and Dad?” she asked.

“Umm,” he said, voice lifting a little. “Ba. Bar-be- No! Next door.” He pointed, keeping his eyes on her. “Jim and Lorraine’s.”

“Oh.” She glanced at the tall fence between her and the neighbors’ place and chewed her lip. “Okay, I guess. But when–?”

“Ummmm.” His voice rose a bit more, along with his pulse. He wasn’t ready for questions–the answers might scare her and then she’d just leave.

But she sighed and took his fingers, her palm small and warm against his rough old hand. His murmur faded away and his eyebrows inched up, like hopeful, hairy caterpillars.

“It’s okay,” she said, patting his hand, “we know where they are. We can get them if we need them.”

The shaggy caterpillars shot skyward and a wordless mutter sputtered through Albert. His body shook and his voice rose higher and higher, like a humming kettle. The edges of his world curled in.

Sally squeezed his hand tight and dug her little fingernails hard into his palm. She stuck out her tongue, waggled it, and went cross-eyed.

“Ha,” said Albert, and his screwed tight muscles collapsed. “Ha-ha! Sally, you’re funny.”

She clutched his hand in both of her own and grinned.

“Come on,” she said, pulling him towards the edge of the deck. “I don’t want to go back inside. Jason was being mean. Tell me a story.”